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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, February 19, 2017 9:55 am

3 on 3: Around the IU beat

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

We're trying something new on this blog. We'll call the periodic installment "3 on 3: Around the IU beat." Three questions about Indiana, three sets of answers, from myself and two other members of the Hoosiers' press corps. The idea being to collective different perspectives on cream-and-crimson matters both on and off the court.

Big thanks to our initial guests, Ken Bikoff of Campus Insiders and Peegs.com and Tyler Smith of IndySportsLegends.com, for lending their insight as Indiana (15-12, 5-9 Big Ten) prepares for Tuesday's visit to Iowa (14-13, 6-8).

Well, OK, let's dive in.

1. What is the top problem you see confronting Indiana in its current free fall?

Bikoff: The obvious issues on the court are a lack of leadership, turnovers and shaky defense, but the bigger issue is that with the season fast coming to a close, IU still doesn't have an identity. It's not a 3-point shooting team. It's not an inside-out team. It's not a defense-first team. It's not a team with an unstoppable post game that can be a hub for the offense. You have to be able to hang your hat on something, and although the drive-and-kick offense has been a staple of the Tom Crean era, IU doesn't have the shooters to make it work this season. When you throw in the shifting identity with the leadership issue and the carelessness with the ball and on defense, you end up with the mess we've seen this season.

Smith: There are several issues with this team right now. Crean has talked about the lack of leadership from his players, and that's definitely one of the problems. But for me, the biggest problem is still the defense. Indiana is 117th in the country in defensive efficiency. They've been better lately, holding Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Purdue to low shooting percentages. But they're also giving up 26 free-throw attempts per game in the last five, which negates some of that improvement. They just don't know how to defend without fouling, and when the team is depleted with injuries, foul trouble will kill you. I don't look at one player on this team as a good on-ball defender. That puts a lot of pressure on the team as a whole.

Goff: Admittedly, it's difficult to tell exactly where the biggest problem is. Is it Robert Johnson's recent lack of effectiveness offensively? Is it guys taking a lot of bad shots and giving the ball away? Is it that Thomas Bryant has been only intermittently great? Is bad decision-making on defense the root of it? Does Crean have an answer? I mean, when you've got this many potential core problems, this is not just a slump or a funk the Hoosiers have been in recently. These struggles have redefined what they are as a team. I'm not sure I even remember the Hoosier team that beat No. 3 Kansas and No. 10 North Carolina in November. Injuries have played a part. But the psyche is completely different. For reasons Ken enumerated above, they're in an identity crisis.

2. Should IU continue to start a twin towers lineup of Thomas Bryant and De'Ron Davis?

Bikoff: I think so, even though it does create problems due to a lack of depth on the front line. Davis is easily IU's best pure post scorer. Bryant can score inside, but he's too quick to turn and face the basket, wanders away from the bucket or doesn't gain deep enough position to begin with. Davis gets good position and does a great job of making himself available for post feeds, and when he has the ball, he has good footwork and an array of moves. Playing both at the same time allows Bryant to operate in his comfort zone, and Davis can do the same. Foul trouble and fatigue can be an issue, but you need to have your backups steal some minutes along the way and keep your strongest lineup on the floor as much as possible, and that includes Davis and Bryant side-by-side.

Smith: I'm a big believer in playing to your strengths and making the opposition adjust to your style, rather than always waiting to see what the other team is going to do. Bryant and Davis together probably gives Indiana the best chance to win. If they both don't start, they should at least get lots of minutes together on the floor. There aren't too many teams who have two good post defenders, so the twin towers are often a matchup nightmare. The Hoosiers have struggled from behind the arc of late, but water will find its level eventually. When they start making 3-pointers again, it will be even more of a reason to play these two together.

Goff: Yes, but against the right matchups. When Crean uses this super-big lineup, the Hoosiers are as long inside as any team in the Big Ten. They have the ability to feast on second shots. But it also compromises them defensively against opponents with athletic big men who can shoot from the perimeter. Bryant and Davis meshed faster than expected on offense and actually present fewer spacing issues as a duo than Juwan Morgan with Davis or Morgan with Bryant. But Northwestern proved last month that smart, skilled teams can run plays which force Bryant or Davis to rove and be dragged out of the paint. Staggering the centers' minutes is sometimes a better option.

3. What or who is the key to the Hoosiers winning some games again?

Bikoff: It sounds simple, but IU has to find the confidence to knock down open jumpers and be more patient on offense. When IU shoots poorly, the Hoosiers lose. Nine of their 12 losses have come when IU has made fewer than 45 percent of their shots. Only one win -- the season opener vs. Kansas -- saw IU win while shooting less than 45 percent. That means finding some swagger from the perimeter and working for open shots. That doesn't mean dribbling and looking for an opening. It means running offense, setting solid screens and working as a team to get good looks. Johnson snapping out of his recent funk would be a huge help, too. IU needs his leadership now more than ever.

Smith: Robert Johnson. I believe Thomas Bryant and James Blackmon Jr. are going to produce more times than not. I really thought Johnson would be the guy to step up the most with OG Anunoby injured, but outside of the Feb. 1 Penn State game, it just hasn't happened. Johnson is averaging just six points per game during this four-game losing streak, while shooting 23 percent in the process. That's not what you expect from a junior with the kind of potential he has. Three of the four losses during this slump have been by five points or less. If Johnson was producing, several of those games could've had a different outcome. In the five conference wins, Johnson is averaging 17.8 points per game. In the nine conference losses, he's averaging 10.4 points per game. This team can't live and die by Blackmon's shooting alone. Johnson needs to find his shot, get consistent and lead.

Goff: Johnson's mojo. He has been 4 of 26 from 3-point range over Indiana's last five games; not good enough. A bounce-back by Johnson would go a long way. He lost his confidence at some point over the past two weeks. His scoring and shooting percentage has dipped drastically over each of the past four games, from 27 points on a 10-of-17 clip Feb. 1 against Penn State to going scoreless on 0-of-6 shooting Wednesday night at Minnesota. He also committed 25 turnovers in the past seven games.